Friday, July 16, 2010

The Immigrants in our Blood (& the Rollei)

As much as anything else, this is about a German immigrant with the last name of Spurgeon, a bona fide wild-assed character who thrived in the utter insanity of the Klondike Gold rush in the late 1890's. A sense of lawlessness dominated that particular time and place, and gold fever was just as much a cultural reality as a state of mind. Take my word, there is a reason it was called gold fever; people were out of their right minds and things like logic, lucidity and something as basic as a sense of right and wrong were all irremediably blurred beyond recognition. Very little had a plain black and white clarity. It was every duck for themselves as they say, and the ones with the most intact wits generally won the day.

The timing for this insanity couldn't have been more perfect for our protagonist, Mr. Spurgeon. His natural traits fit this scenario perfectly and he was the proverbial fish in water and he blossomed accordingly. How he met Susie Spurgeon, our Great-grandmother, married her and had children is a mystery lost in time. She was the polar opposite of him; someone who represented logical thought and clear moral standing. I'd love to have heard one of their typical morning conversations.

Saying Spurgeon was the black sheep of our family would be putting it mildly. My Great-grandfather did a lot of things that are also lost in time, and there are only fuzzy stories here and there about his exploits, many of which fit the lunacy of the gold rush. A colossal rift shattered our family the last time he was seen alive by any of them. Let's just say when the gold dust cleared, all of his children took other last names and the Spurgeon name is nowhere to be found in our family tree, save for one humble entry in the late 1800's. It was as though by getting rid of his name, we could get rid of him. Guess what? He's still there, tenaciously hanging on to that one branch of the family tree. With a silly expression and cigar in the corner of his mouth, but hanging on, nonetheless.

At any rate, over a cold beer on a hot, hot day in Northern California back in the 1970's, our uncle Judson Brown burst out laughing while telling me part of the story of his journey to Germany in search of our mysterious Spurgeon family roots. It was infectious. He had a German Rollei SL66 camera system spread out in front of him on the table, and was showing me the finer details of how to use it and before we knew it, he was literally roaring with laughter; you see, Judson had a booming voice, and an even more booming laughter. It was interesting that Judson was unfolding this family history while talking about the Rollei and trip to Germany; it inferred that history, place and objects were intertwined in some manner and it was up to us to figure out what it meant.

I think Uncle Judson may have gotten this Rollei SL66 camera system from his trip to Germany. Maybe not. It's a real beauty, regardless. He was in Germany over 40 years ago looking for relatives, which was a bit ironic, given that he was one of our honored Tlingit elders, a Chief, intellectual leader, commercial fisherman, and so on.
Judson Lawrence Brown (I have his middle name)

I made a print from this story, titled Great-grandparents. There was only one original segment of a photo of Great-grandpa. Someone cut up the antique photo; I can't imagine why (facetious voice inflection here). It appears to be an albumen print from a large format glass plate negative, professionally made. Part of the photo has a rough gash along the side, and I can just imagine someone ripping it up in a state of exasperation. This portion of the photograph was given to a family friend; I don't think that anyone in the family even wanted the segment of the photo to be near them, let alone in their possession.

The thing that saved the torn photo from certain eradication was that our great-grandma was also in the photo. I think that it is notable that one of the base meanings of the word eradication means to pull up by the roots, which couldn't describe the scenario more precisely, both literally and metaphorically.

Someone cut a mask and taped it over the photo so that they wouldn't have to see Great-grandpa. Judson went to his desk and pulled this original photographic remnant out and flicked it across the table with a hint of a sly grin.

It's kind of funny that this story is intertwined with the camera. This bent story kind of transforms this camera into a de facto stand-in for something. I'm not sure what, but it seemed to represent something more than a camera, and I really liked it that Judson was able to laugh about it; I think that perhaps it may explain a part of why many relatives were so rambunctious. Maybe not, who knows? I think Judson was searching for remnants of Spurgeon in Germany because he wanted to know too. We're all looking for answers about our own identity, sometimes going on life-long journeys that take us to the other side of the world.

When Judson passed on, my brother Chris asked me if I wanted this fine camera, since I was one of the photographers in the family. I told him that perhaps it should go to Da-ka-xeen, our nephew, because I already had a Hasselblad system. Years later, I asked Da-ka-xeen if I could trade anything for the Rollei system. I'd sold my Hasselblad and needed another medium format system. I used it for a few years, mostly photographing desert scenes to use as a background for my Tonto series.

Da-ka-xeen is a wonderful artist teaching at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and is making a name for himself in the art world. He made a series of works, including this one titled Reflections, where he placed himself in various Tlingit tableaus, or scenes.

Reflections, by Da-ka-xeen Mehner

Da-ka-xeen with the Rollei

It did my heart well to see this print by Da-ka-xeen, not only because of it's content, but if you look closely, you'll see that he's holding the Rolleiflex in his right hand! I almost feel like naming this camera the Uncle/Nephew Dakl'aweidei Kéet Gooshi Hít (Killer Whale Fin House) camera. This Rollei is going to a second generation Kéet nephew, and yes, it does have Tlingit strings attached.

It has a 40mm Carl Zeiss Distagon lens that is nothing less than phenomenal. It is the equivalent of using a 26mm lens on a 35mm camera body, which has an approximate 88˚ angle of view. What is really cool is that it is so distortion free, no distorting lines in the scene like with most wide-angle lenses. Even the legendary pro Canon L lenses have a touch of barrel distortion at this width. This was a lens made by German craftsmen to impeccable tolerances, and the venerable Distagons are still sold to photographic connoisseurs for their high-end digital SLR bodies.

Photograph of Larry by T'naa McNeil

This 40mm Distagon is my all-time favorite lens for medium format cameras, and I'm going to miss it a lot. I got the photos I wanted and am sending the system back to Da-ka-xeen. Damn that glass is good. This film camera earned its place in the digital world by way of producing superb negatives that scan beautifully, rendering prints of impeccable quality.

The classic array of prime lenses: normal, wide & short telephoto

I think it's cool that this Rolleiflex SL66 is a German camera system. For some reason, I feel that perhaps some of our family blood is swimming around in there somewhere. Judson didn't explain everything, and left something akin to a Cheshire cat grin for us to try and figure out.

Have fun with the camera again, Da-ka-xeen. I shipped it this morning.

Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010. All rights reserved. Reproduction by permission only.

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